Genetic Genealogy and Personal Genomics in the Classroom – Part I

Today begins the first in a series of articles about the use of genetic genealogy and personal genomics in the classroom, ranging from high school to college-level.

Many scientists and health care experts believe that genetics will be a vital component to several facets of our lives in the future, especially in the field of medicine.  Indeed, some consider the study of genetics to be one of the most promising solutions to many of the health dilemmas facing society today, including advancing our understanding of interactions between genetics and the environment.  Accordingly, today’s students should have at least a basic grasp of genetics, and science educators must find innovative ways to share those concepts with their students.

A Need for Genetics Education

Unfortunately, some studies suggest that many of today’s students lack comprehension of some of the most basic concepts in genetics.  See, e.g., Wood-Robinson, C., Lewis, J. and Leach, J. 2000, Young people’s understanding of the nature of genetic information in the cells of an organism, J Bio Educ 35(1):29-36; and Quinn, F., Pegg, J., and Panizzon, D. 2009, First-Year Biology Students’ Understandings of Meiosis: An Investigation Using a Structural Theoretical Framework, Int’l J. Sci Educ 31(10):1279-1305.

While students certainly can learn about genetics through lectures and textbooks, there is little doubt that hands-on experiences help reinforce concepts and may even reach some students that are less likely to learn from passive methods.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll examine several instances of genetic genealogy and/or personal genomics being used in the classroom to examine and reinforce concepts of genetics, race, and ethics, including the following:

  • The Genographic Project  in High Schools (Chicago Public Schools, Soldan International High School, Edward Bleeker Middle School, and Olympic High School) (2007-)
  • The Cornell Genetic Ancestry Project (2011)
  • 23andMe Testing for Freshman at Berkeley (2010)
  • Medical School Testing (SUNY Upstate Medical University and Stanford) (2010-)
  • Anthropology and Genetics at Penn State University (2012)
  • Personal Genetics Education Project (

Without further ado, let’s begin with the use of genetic genealogy in schools.

The Genographic Project in Middle and High Schools

Each of the school projects below were conducted in conjunction with the The Genographic Project, which has done a tremendous job of working with public schools to educate students about their genetic ancestry.

A.  Chicago Public High Schools in 2007

The earliest reference I can find of commercial genetic genealogy being used in the classroom is from 2007, when The Genographic Project (National Geographic, IBM, and Family Tree DNA) donated 150 testing kits to each of five Chicago Public Schools and 50 kits to each of their international partner schools in England, Jordan, France, South Africa, and China (a total of 1000 kits, priced at approximately $100 each).

According to several reports, the teachers at these schools expected the testing to provide the students with valuable information and experiences:

Parents ‘hear DNA, all they think about is “CSI.” It’s not like that at all,’ said Brian McKay, who teaches European history at the Charles A. Prosser Career Academy and scraped his own cheeks for cells on Tuesday. ‘Our kids are going to get a lot out of this. (Students) are very positive, they’re very excited.’  Source.

Prosser Principal Ken Hunter stated that:

“We are more than excited to help our students learn about our world’s common threads. At Prosser we tell our students to “extend the world”—this project presents them with a wonderful opportunity to make those words come alive in real world application. My teachers are thrilled to be taking part in such a thoughtful learning activity that brings the idea of common ancestry and shared humanity to our students in such a powerful and compelling way. This ‘learning tool’ has really helped make the education experience here at Prosser ‘the stuff that dreams are made of.” Source.

Interestingly, the schools involved were chosen based in part on the diversity of the student population:  “‘Chicago is a melting pot, a multicultural melting pot, it’s a great place to illustrate how interrelated we are,’ [Spencer] Wells said.”

The launch of the project was covered by The Genographic Project itself, and by the media:

Unfortunately I was unable to find any reports of the outcome of the testing, so it’s unclear what lessons the students derived from the experience.

B. Soldan International High School in Chicago in 2007

In 2007, forty advanced placement science students at Soldan International High School in St. Louis, Missouri submitted their DNA for testing with the Genographic Project.  (see “High school students uncover their past through their DNA“) (several articles also appeared in the St. Louis Dispatch, but are now found only in the newspaper’s archives).

At Discovering Biology in a Digital World, blogger Sandra Porter wrote the following about the Soldan project:

Most science instructors steer clear of these sorts of activities because there is a real possibility that children might learn some things in class that their parents would prefer remain secret. Any science instructor who’s had to find a really creative way to explain why a student has the “wrong blood type” based on their parentage, will appreciate that analyzing Y chromosomes has potential for trouble.  I wonder how the teachers at Soldan will answer those questions.

I actually wrote about this project here on TGG back in 2007, the early days of the blog, partially to address the concerns that were raised (see “Genetic Genealogy in the Classroom”).  As Sandra’s blog post suggested, some were concerned that testing in the classroom had the potential to reveal non-parental events.  To address this issue, I posited the following:

“although there is surely a chance of there BEING a non-parental event in a large group of students, the chance of CONCLUDING that there was a non-parental event is quite small. Most genetic genealogy companies return a list of allele numbers (12 alleles for the Genographic Project) for Y-DNA or a list of mutations for mtDNA along with a probable haplogroup designation. Armed with that knowledge, how is a student going to determine that there was a non-parental event?”

There are certainly some ethical concerns with genetic genealogy testing in the classroom, but non-paternal events are unlikely to be of serious concern.

C.  Other Schools

Following the apparent success of the Chicago school experiment, the Genographic Project worked with several other schools in the following years:

  • Newark High School in western New York state (2007) – approximately 10 students contributed DNA to the Genographic Project for testing (see “Connecting Some Dots With Our DNA”);
  • Edward Bleeker Middle School in Flushing, New York (2011) – several sixth graders participated in testing, as roughly 400 students at four different New York City public schools would trace their ancestry with the Genographic Project (see “Am I Related to Justin Bieber?”);
  • Harlem Children’s Zone in Harlem, NY (2011) – In last Sunday’s episode of “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,” Gates tested a group of six or so African American students at Harlem Children’s Zone.  The testing appears to have analyzed only their ethnicity, which varied considerably.  What was most interesting, however, was that Gates discussed with them the implications of their testing, and asked for their thoughts after receiving their test results.

A Useful Exercise: Estimating Admixture Before Testing

On Finding Your Roots, Gates also had the students estimate their admixture before they received their results, which is a great way to introduce the scientific and historical concepts associated with admixture testing.  This is a tool that Gates has already used at least once in the series, and I’m sure we’ll see it again.

Another useful component of this exercise might be to have the kids do some preliminary research on their own family tree before estimating their admixture, including research as simple as asking parents and grandparents.  With this information, they could make a more educated estimate of their admixture.


Although using genetic genealogy in the classroom is not new, it hasn’t been used as extensively as it could be.  What suggestions do you have for the successful use of testing in the classroom?

2 Responses

  1. Leah David 8 April 2012 / 12:43 pm

    I have a question you may be able to answer. I have 5 mutations on the SNP for Familial Mediterranean Fever. I am ill with the disorder. One of the mutations is connected as an ancient missense founder mutation. Does this suggest that I am likely a direct descendant of the founder for FMF? Whomever that may be..

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